Joe Biden essentially clinched the Democratic nomination last night. He won crushing victories in Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi. He also won Idaho and might win Washington state. Bernie Sanders didn’t address his supporters and instead flew home to Vermont. I suspect he will end his campaign sometime this week, though he may stay through the debate Sunday night so he can lose Florida by 50 points next Tuesday.
Joe Biden won the race for the same reason he entered it as a frontrunner: Democrats want somebody that they believe can beat Trump. Biden is a fully vetted candidate and he’s well liked. He offers a sharp contrast to Trump on a personal level. Biden’s inherent empathy exposes Trump’s overbearing narcissism. Voters want a president they can like.
As a candidate, he showed remarkable resilience. After losing Iowa and New Hampshire, most pundits and observers counted him out. Instead, he made a remarkable comeback that highlighted his deep relationship with African American voters. As one African American woman explained, “He took his cues from this black man who had more power than him and was virtually unknown when he took the presidency and Joe Biden had been around forever…Not once did he try to undermine him, this black man. Instead Joe walked in lockstep with him, he respected, he loved and trusted him…You tell me one 40+ year ‘establishment’ white politician has ever done that. Joe Biden is cut from a different cloth. And black folks understand that.”
Biden’s success is based on his relationships and connections. People will overlook a lot of flaws in someone they like and trust. Biden doesn’t need to be a perfect candidate. He just needs to be Joe Biden.
For the people who made up Sanders’ base, the campaign offers a lot of lessons.
First, in electoral politics, coalitions beat movements. Movements ask people to come to them and exclude people who don’t. Coalitions grow by building relationships, inviting people to move forward, often for different reasons. Joe Biden may be everybody’s second choice but they all agree that he’s better than Trump.
People don’t vote for slogans. Sanders campaign was based on a bunch of slogans that meant little to the people who determine election. The Green New Deal is just words that sound good. Nobody knows what it means, and if you do, you’re the exception not the rule. Same for Medicare-for-All. Sure they poll well. So would Ice Cream for Everyone. That doesn’t mean people will vote for them. And it doesn’t mean they won’t change their minds when they get details presented by people who oppose them.
Which gets to a central point of campaigns. Voters are self-interested. The people who determine elections aren’t generally that well-read or intellectual. They’re people asking, “What, specifically, can you do for me?” The answer they want is, “I’ll save you money on your health insurance while offering better coverage.” Or “I’ll increase your wages by raising the minimum wage.” Or, “I’ll make schools better for your children by attracting better teachers.”
If you’re going to try to win running against someone or something, define who or what it is. Sanders ran in a Democratic primary promising to beat the “establishment,” implying Joe Biden was a tool of this amorphous group. Sanders claimed he was talking about monied interests and big corporations, but black voters thought he was talking about them. And Biden won on Super Tuesday with little money and less organization and he won among minorities, older people, college-educated women and white working class voters. That looks more like the movement Bernie claimed to lead than the one he actually led.
The Democratic Party’s problem is that it’s a coalition of disparate groups who often have conflicting interests. Hence, Will Roger’s statement, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” The Democratic establishment is a whole lot of people and interests groups. If Joe Biden can unite them against Donald Trump, God bless him. And Godspeed.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >